Originally created 05/29/99

Judge ends school desegregation case



JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- A federal judge has dismissed Jacksonville's 39-year-old school desegregation case, saying the public schools are being run without racial discrimination "to the maximum extent possible."

The decision to dismiss the desegregation case in Jacksonville fits the trend of the 1990s. School desegregation cases have been dismissed in Cleveland; Oklahoma City; Buffalo, N.Y.; Kansas City, Mo.; DeKalb County, Ga.; and St. Lucie County.

Conceding that the school system is far from reaching many desegregation goals, U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges nonetheless ruled that students are treated equally "in all respects," regardless of race.

The decision means the end, at least temporarily, of a case that became a huge smudge on the face of the school system, and the city in general.

"It's a good day for Jacksonville," said local Superintendent John Fryer. "This can be appealed, but the judge's decision is law until somebody produces another decision."

Judge Hodges stressed in his ruling that, even though many school enrollments are still heavily weighted by one race, and that other signs of an imbalanced school system exist, at least the school system is trying.

The judge referred continually to a 1990 desegregation agreement signed by the School Board and the NAACP that said the board must try to desegregate to the "maximum extent practicable."

The fact that the magnetschools program, the school system's major desegregation tool, is gaining steady albeit slow progress is an important sign of effort, the judge wrote.

He also said many of the school system's desegregation efforts have been slowed by circumstances beyond its control, such as racially imbalanced population patterns.

Most school officials were ecstatic about the decision.

"What it means for me as a board member is that the decisions are not made in the courtroom anymore, but by our local school district," School Board Chairwoman Linda Sparks said.

"Of course, we will remain a desegregative school district," Mr. Fryer said. "We'll keep careful watch over how we assign people so we don't head back into court."

Members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the plaintiff in the case that began with a lawsuit filed in 1960, either withheld comment or briefly expressed disappointment.

"All over the country, courts are saying schools are unitary (treating all students equally) even though they're not," said Eddie Mae Steward, a former Jacksonville NAACP president.

Throughout his decision, Judge Hodges struck down NAACP points as invalid.

One by one, lawsuits aimed at ensuring that black children sit side-by-side with white children are coming to a close in big-city school districts across the country.

And now that the unrest in those cities, sparked by such measures as involuntary busing, fade into the recesses of newspaper archives, the schools are said to remain as they were: black and white.

Educators and community leaders from some of those cities said that the problems of race and educational equality have not faded away.

In Buffalo, N.Y., whose school district was declared unitary by a federal court in 1995, school enrollments largely reflect the demographics of the district's population, said Yvonne Hargrave, associate superintendent.

But those demographics are lopsided. About 75 percent of students are minorities. A quarter of the school population is white.

School officials, who created existing districts to meet the aims of integration, are beginning to discuss a redrawing of these boundaries to return to a pattern of community schools, Ms. Hargrave said.

But Frank Mesiah, head of the Buffalo branch of the NAACP, said the federal court's decision to dismiss the case left much undone.

"It was like leaving the evacuation of the wounded to those who shot them down," he said. "Some of the same people who helped create the problem were left to implement the solution."

And racial divisions remain acute on the school board after white members recently tried to oust a black superintendent, he said.

This sense of unfinished business is shared by John Evans, an NAACP leader in DeKalb County, Ga. A federal desegregation case came to an end there in 1992.

After 25 years, "the courts just got fed up with it," he said.